This article originally appeared as a Library of America Story of the Week feature.
An Interview with Mark Twain
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
In 1889, having published six short-story collections in a one-year period, the 23-year-old Rudyard Kipling left India for a tour of America and Europe. His travels brought him to New York and Connecticut, where he hoped to locate and "shake hands with" Mark Twain, the "man I had learned to love and admire fourteen thousand miles away." His recollection of that encounter was published in newspapers from Allahabad to New York. "An Interview with Mark Twain" is more than a transcription of his conversation with the author of Tom Sawyer; Kipling also recounts the humorous story of how he hunted down his idol, his awe at actually meeting him, and Twain's genteel demeanor to a stranger arriving unannounced at the door.
When Rudyard Kipling traveled to England the following year and soon became a literary celebrity, Mark Twain did not immediately connect the young visitor with the rising star of English letters--but Twain's daughter Susy, enamored with the idea that anyone could hail from such an exotic locale, had kept Kipling's calling card with its address in India. Twain then read Plain Tales from the Hills and wrote to a friend, "whereas Kipling's stories are plenty good enough on a first reading they very greatly improve on a second." Mark Twain later recalled his initial encounter with Kipling: "I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before--though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would. . . . He was a stranger to me and to all the world, and remained so for twelve months, then he became suddenly known, and universally known."
(Note: The "Robert" to which Mark Twain refers during his conversation with Kipling is Robert Elsmere, an 1888 novel by Mrs. Humphrey Ward.)
You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. Some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V. C., and a few are privileged to walk about the Mall arm in arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning, have shaken his hand, and smoked a cigar--no, two cigars--with him, and talked with him for more than two hours! Understand clearly that I do not despise you; indeed, I don't. I am only very sorry for you, from the Viceroy downward. To soothe your envy and to prove that I still regard you as my equals, I will tell you all about it.
They said in Buffalo that he was in Hartford, Conn.; and again they said "perchance he is gone upon a journey to Portland"; and a big, fat drummer vowed that he knew the great man intimately, and that Mark was spending the summer in Europe--which information so upset me that I embarked upon the wrong train, and was incontinently turned out by the conductor three-quarters of a mile from the station, amid the wilderness of railway tracks. Have you ever, encumbered with great-coat and valise, tried to dodge diversely-minded locomotives when the sun was shining in your eyes? But I forgot that you have not seen Mark Twain, you people of no account! . . . Read the full story below.